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Drama Plays to Past and Present

November 19, 1999

Mark Miester

When assistant professor of theater Lisa Jo Epstein began searching for a play around which to build an ensemble-production course, a curious phenomenon caught her attention. At the time, the Italian film Life Is Beautiful had become a surprise box-office hit in the United States.

The film, which tells the story of a Jew's efforts to shield his son from the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp, won three Academy Awards and drew rapturous responses from U.S. audiences moved by its beauty and power.

Yet at the same time, Epstein noted, a genocide was taking place in the former Yugoslavia, an atrocity of which many Americans remained only remotely aware. "That opened the door for me," recalls Epstein. "I said, 'okay, how can I look at that historical time period and use it as a jumping off point to bring to the surface these issues that are embedded in history but are also of the moment.'"

Epstein had a few other requirements for the play. "I wanted it to be by a woman, I wanted it to be a living playwright, and I also wanted it to engage the students on a number of levels," explains Epstein, who joined the Department of Theatre and Dance in 1997 as the department's only scholar-practitioner.

"For me, theater functions best when it becomes a dialogue with the spectators. I'm interested in theater that asks questions instead of offering solutions."

Epstein began reading Holocaust dramas and eventually discovered Mr. Fugue (or Earth Sick), a drama by French playwright Liliane Atlan that explores the issues of responsibility and redemption between a German soldier and a group of orphans in a Polish concentration camp.

Atlan's play is based on the real-life story of Janusz Korczak, a Polish doctor and educator who operated an orphanage in the Warsaw ghetto. According to legend, Korczak was so devoted to his children that he forsook a chance at freedom to accompany the orphans on the journey to their extermination.

Atlan, who spent World War II in hiding from the Nazis, uses that story as the basis for her account of Sgt. Grol, a German soldier who undergoes a transformation as he accompanies orphans on their grim voyage to the Valley of Bones. The role of Grol is played by Ron Gural, an associate professor of theater.

The production and the course that accompanies it include nine students who were cast after an open audition that attracted 90 students. To prepare class members for their roles in the play, Epstein immersed them in diverse representations of the Holocaust, with readings including Art Spiegelman's Maus, Leon Uris' Mila, Elie Wiesel's Night, and films including the BBC documentary The World at War, Kjell Grede's Good Evening Mr. Wallenberg and The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Epstein also brought in colleagues from the faculty of liberal arts and sciences who have taught Holocaust-related courses, including Jeffrey Haus from Jewish studies, Rebecca Mark from English and Larry Powell from history.

"For me," says Epstein, "it was important to have historical grounding in this time period so that students have a grasp of the events, the gradual building up of policies in the 1930s."

Epstein hopes that the events of the play have significance to both the past and present. "There aren't going to be any Jewish stars, there aren't any swastikas," she says. "The soldiers are not referred to as Germans in Atlan's play but are called the greens, a reference to generic military fatigues, which serves as a reminder of the universal horror of genocidal action. The Jewish experience can be used as a jumping-off point for talking about other situations of the contemporary moment," says Epstein.

Mr. Fugue (or Earth Sick) will be presented at the Lupin Theatre, Nov. 16-21. Performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday with 2 p.m. matinees on Saturday and Sunday. For more information, contact the Lupin Theatre box office at 865-5106.

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